John Hewson
A rudderless Coalition

Coalition strategists have tended to assume that an ageing population is to their advantage, electorally. It is obviously a factor behind their support for Peter Dutton and his strategy to drag the Coalition to extremely conservative policy settings, as their best chance of winning the next election.

But a recent study by Matthew Taylor for the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) contests the adage that if you’re not a progressive when you’re 20, “you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative by the time you are 40, you have no head” by assessing intergenerational political attitudes and electoral behaviour. The study suggested there has been a marked decline in Millennials allocating their first preferences to the Coalition in the house of representatives at Australian federal elections so far this century. In the early 2000s it was about 35 per cent, falling to just 25 per cent at the 2022 election.

To add to this concern for the Coalition, the study also reports that among Gen Z voters – the newest cohort, born after 1996 – just 26 per cent gave their first preference house votes to the Coalition. The authors of the Australian Election Study for 2022, Sarah Cameron et al, commented that “no other generation records such skewed preferences at similarly early stages of the life course”.

Of course, the CIS study makes an important implicit assumption, namely that you can extrapolate voting patterns, and the way people voted in the past will be sustained into the future. That’s a courageous assumption in such a dynamic, changing world. However, it’s clear that in polling since the last election, the Coalition has garnered less support than the Greens from the under-35 age group.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott, in a recent Radio National interview, described the shift in the electoral mood as “rich people moving to the left and poor people moving to the right”.

His Liberal predecessor, John Howard, was always fond of referring to the Liberal Party as a “broad church”, but he governed mostly to the right-hand side of the pulpit, presumably to consolidate the supposed age effect to his party’s benefit. He openly discriminated against those with more progressive ideas, restricting the opportunities of people such as his one-time Finance minister John Fahey, former member for Cook Bruce Baird, former member for Kooyong Petro Georgiou and many notable others. Indeed, if Howard had maintained a genuinely broad church, the Coalition would probably be in better electoral shape today.

What has been missed over the intervening years, and especially more recently, is the whole electorate has shifted to being more progressive – not radically but certainly perceptibly. Much of this evolution has been driven by key issues and challenges that governments have left to drift by attempting to play short-term politics, or that they have simply failed to address with the necessary urgency. These issues include all the care sectors – child, aged and disability care – as well as climate (with so many years lost to the misguided climate wars) and integrity and accountability. These three key issues were fundamental to the independents’ revolution at the last election.

Abbott’s comments in his interview most obviously reflect the impact of the teals – he is still most sensitive about his loss to Zali Steggall in Warringah. Ironically, he seems to be relying primarily on the performance of a Labor government to reclaim these seats, saying “we’ll win them back when a bad Labor government is attacking the economic interests of the rather well-to-do people who live there. That’s exactly what the Albanese government is doing now. We won’t win them back by trying to out-teal the teals.”

Before attempting to assess the proposed strategies of a couple of Liberal luminaries to win the next election, it’s helpful to summarise the present position of the Coalition electorally. First, the polls. The Albanese government has actually improved its standing since the last election, and Anthony Albanese has maintained his dominant position versus Dutton as preferred prime minister. Second, demographics are clearly shifting. The “positive age effect” is of dwindling significance and indeed the Coalition has been bleeding aged voters. Women voters increasingly feel disenfranchised by the Coalition and young voters are similarly unimpressed, especially relative to the Greens. The teal independents are consolidating their positions, making it very difficult, if not completely unlikely, that the Coalition could win these seats back, and indeed the party risks losing more seats to independents. Third, the Dutton negativity is becoming toxic with many voters, who are more interested in hearing about his vision for Australia and his policy prescriptions for the key policy challenges. The opposition leader’s negativity, blame game and general lack of policy substance has already taken a toll on his party, as evidenced by the recent Aston byelection.

And finally, while the Coalition still enjoys unswerving loyalty from key sections of the media, especially Sky News and the Nine Network, there are mounting tensions between the Coalition partners, and some disunity within the National Party.

In recent weeks, both Abbott and the shadow treasurer Angus Taylor have offered what they believe to be winning strategies for the next election.

Abbott wrote in The Australian that “what’s needed is serious research into the things that should matter for a centre-right government” and went on to advocate a plan “that could win an election and sustain a good government” – a “Fightback-style policy platform to inform the actions of a Coalition government”.

Abbott claimed “it’s easy enough to identify the issues holding our country back: too many supposedly skilled migrants who end up driving Ubers; too many young Australians going into name-your-topic ‘studies’ courses rather than the hard sciences and practical trades that are in such short supply; couples putting off having children because a home of their own is way beyond reach; too many working-age people who neither work nor have serious caring responsibilities; and the red tape that’s smothering economic activity in the name of health and safety, sustainability, and diversity and inclusion. Even so, there’s been little deep thinking about how this might be changed.”

In sharp contrast, Taylor is reported to have told the Sydney Institute last week that the Liberal Party needs to unite behind the Menzies-era agenda that won the party its first election over the Chifley Labor government’s handling of the 1940s inflation, power shortages and housing supply crises.

As appealing as this may sound to some aged party stalwarts, Taylor is really pushing the comparison with former prime minister Robert Menzies and the early postwar era. For example, as much as Taylor would have us believe the key issues then were inflation and housing – a comparison he is desperate to make in an attempt to give some substance to his mumblings – he completely neglects the strong anti-communist atmosphere of the early Cold War period, which Menzies was able to exploit as the basis of his 1949 campaign, by calling for the communist movement to be stamped out. It should be recognised that it was the anti-communist stance of Menzies, which ultimately resulted in the Democratic Labor Party’s split from the Australian Labor Party, that ensured the longevity of his prime ministership. He was also able to exploit the middle-class rejection of then prime minister Ben Chifley’s 1947 decision to nationalise the private banks. Moreover, in the lead-up to the 1949 campaign, Menzies effectively ran the “No” case against the Chifley referendum to extend Commonwealth wartime powers to control rents and prices. Yes, it could be argued, as Taylor also notes, that Menzies emphasised free enterprise against Labor’s socialist measures – which Taylor would translate today as against Labor’s support for “big government”.

Clearly, with such a diversity of views among the Liberals, not to mention the Nationals, the Coalition seems rudderless. As long as senior members of the Liberal Party continue to push their own barrows, it is most unlikely to enthuse voters across the board.

It is noteworthy that Dutton continues to attempt to destroy the Albanese government with scaremongering on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. While the opposition leader’s posturing does nothing to help honest, open debate and is certainly not in our national interest, it is ironic that he bases his strategy on a lack of detail about the referendum and how the Voice will work. He should apply the same logic to himself and his party. Voters certainly don’t have enough detail of what he thinks about the challenges facing our country today, nor of his plan for government.

Dutton is busily hoisting himself with his own petard.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2023 as "A rudderless Coalition".

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